For the first time in a long time, Downey voters will go to the voting booth Tuesday to elect a new city councilman without having seen the candidates debate beforehand.
This should tell us something about the timidity of the current hopefuls. Instead of observing how smart and nimble they are, or dumb and klutzy (we’ve had those), we won’t know, until it’s too late, who they are, how broad their life experience is, how knowledgeable they are about how a healthy society works, how they field questions on the fly, how they deal with opposing views, what their thoughts on governance are, or if they’re satisfied with the status quo or have ideas on taking Downey into the future.
Instead, we’re supposed to make an informed decision about whom we vote in based largely on the platitudinous drivel of PR releases and pureed public statements.
Technically, three candidates are competing for the 4th District seat of Fernando Vasquez, who will be termed out at the end of this election cycle. In reality there are only two: Claudia Frometa, an emergency management consultant for Kaiser Permanente, and Carrie Uva, a real estate broker and attorney. There is a scattering of lawn posters around town bearing the name of Tony Hernandez, but the only other evidence that a Tony Hernandez actually exists ends with his candidate’s filing with the city. Otherwise, he has not been heard from.
This represents a backward step for the city, not because Downey’s political class and civic leaders have rigged up some kind of Soviet-style apparatchik who would win even if the only vote he got was from his mother. They haven’t—though two candidates hardly represent a wide variety of choice. What no debate and virtually no public appearances (except among friends and supporters) imply is a mounting disconnect between the people of Downey and their political leadership.
I’m not talking about social Downey’s community-minded esprit and its pride of place. In just the past few weeks we’ve seen the CROP Walk to fight hunger, the Downey Spirit Awards, the generous civic and educational gifts granted by the Mary Stauffer Foundation, and the tireless effort of Lorine Parks to report on a variety of local cultural and fraternal events, which helps inestimably in lending us a sense of cohesion. And councilmen Sean Ashton, Rick Rodriguez and Alex Saab are seen regularly around town representing the city in any number of gatherings and ribbon-cutting events.
No, I’m talking about the unwillingness of the general public to visit the engine room of the city—the city council meetings where crucial decisions are made that affect everyone who lives here. You can criticize the lack of imagination our city leaders have shown in mapping out strategies to deal with local ills, even if they’re systemic in origin, such as homelessness; the precipitous and ultimately destructive rise in housing and rental costs; air and traffic pollution; and the absence of a robust cultural life (no resident theater group, no permanent space to show art, no low-rent space for performance and visual artists to work and rehearse in, no arts council to recommend policy and attract artists, etc). And you can laugh at their follies: does anyone remember the name of our sister city in China, or the one in Ireland?
Hardly anyone shows up at city council meetings. If people do arrive in numbers it’s because an issue pops up that’s specific to that group’s interest. Once it’s resolved, everyone clears out, as if a bomb squad has ordered a mass evacuation. Nobody sticks around to watch the council discuss important issues and then vote on them. No one stays to watch the democratic process in action. Hardly anyone is there to speak up, petition, or just watch and wait for Election Day, and thereby help shape its outcome.
The developers stay, however. The people who can make money off the city, they stay too. They’re there for their own commercial interests. The per capita income for Downey is slightly more than $23,000. That’s well beneath the poverty line, and not a good indicator of a city intent on improving the quality of life within its boundaries. That’s why the look of the place is becoming drearier, more generic, even as the general spirit of Downey seems to be picking up.
The Downey Patriot at least managed to get Frometa and Uva to answer a battery of question—the same for each—for its October 10 edition (Hernandez, characteristically, did not respond). The questions asked why they’re running, what they think qualifies them for office, what differentiates them from each other, their priorities, their views on the future of the Downey Civic Theater and the arts in general, local housing development, and if they’d support a homeless shelter in Downey.
Their answers were so similar that differences were moot. (“I care about this city…Downey has been my home since…” etc.). Both have extensive resumes when it comes to engagement with city departments and local businesses and civic organizations. Both use the word “transparency,” a principle, for Uva, somewhat weakened by her unwillingness to communicate in any way other than e-mail or text.
Naturally they want to put their best foot forward, but on the transparency issue, I’ve been waiting for years for someone to explain just what the ethically challenged Fernando Vasquez, who is not a wealthy man, did to get in on a commercial partnership to build a high end restaurant on the corner of 2nd Street and Downey Avenue, and thereby sacrifice a crucial vote on the state of one of the most vital areas of the city. Could a tacit rebuke lie in Frometa’s line, “I don’t have ties to any other business/es that could pose a conflict of interest as an elected city official”?
Vasquez supports Frometa, as does a formidable portion of the Downey political and business establishment. I would give her the slight edge here, though Uva has strong support, also from business, and from influential realtors. She’s a lawyer and realtor, president of the local Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Public Works Commission. Frometa has the more interesting job as part of Kaiser Permanente’s National Emergency Management team.
Both support a strong local police force—this has been part of the mandatory police/business mantra every candidate has been sounding for as long as memory serves (if the trend continues, we’ll have candidates calling for martial law at 10 p.m.). Both punted on the question of a homeless shelter. Writes Frometa, “Downey has a rich history that I’d like to preserve and protect for younger generations.” Uva writes, “I’ll keep our local government accountable and serve our community with a strong voice.” Both, and similar, statements reach a tie in the yawn factor.
If I were part of what now must be an imaginary audience, I’d ask Frometa if her membership in the First Baptist Church of Downey, which has property ownership and formidable clout in the downtown area, would have any bearing on her decisions in what went on in that same district. And I’d ask Uva what she means when she says that “nightlife” is causing problems for downtown (a laughable term, really, when it only takes five minutes to walk its entire length), when nightlife—clubs, galleries, theater, performance spaces, music and entertainment venues—is precisely what Downey is missing.
Both talk about programs for kids (Uva adds seniors). That’s been another mantra, which led local gadfly Harold Tseklenis to observe, years ago, that Downey has an abundance of programs for kids and the elderly; what it doesn’t have is interesting things to do for adults in between.
Uva seemed a bit more specific in her knowledge of some of the problems regarding housing and traffic. Frometa emphasizes family values. What’s less specific is what each of them actually plans to do if elected.
What Downey lacks, and has lacked for some time, is a sense of direction, of identity in an increasingly generic, corporatized environment. But you can’t altogether put the blame on our city leaders after asking so little of them. In a democracy, people get the government they deserve. Now we’re not even asking candidates to interview for us in debate.
This time the blame’s on us.